Ross mentions this profile of Russian President Medvedev as an interesting source of background, and I agree that it is a useful primer on Medvedev if you are not familiar with his career prior to his elevation by Putin and election, but I am instinctively wary of efforts to interpret the actions of foreign governments or to speculate about their future actions based on the biographies of their temporary heads of state. Even if the impulse to distinguish Medvedev from Putin helps to make reconciliation with Russia more palatable in the short term, it inevitably sets up American observers for disappointment if it makes them overly confident that Russian policy is somehow going to change significantly with respect to Russian resistance to NATO expansion, ballistic missile defense or the launching of “pre-emptive” and humanitarian wars against their satellites and clients. Just as there are limits and constraints imposed by our political class and foreign policy establishment on how far Obama can go in accommodating Russia, whoever happens to be the head of state in Moscow will face similar limitations on his side.

One of the reasons I continually, perhaps boringly, insist that the Kagan-esque description of Russia and China as “autocracies” is completely wrong is that it creates a false impression that any particular head of state wields the kind of arbitrary and absolute power that an autocrat would actually possess. According to much of our political class, Putin was perceived to be a Bad Tsar, but that leaves open the possibility of a Good Tsar, when there are actually no more tsars. Otherwise, this autocracy framing is premised on the even more ridiculous notion that if only Russia were more democratic (which would actually make it more nationalistic in its policies) Russian policy would be less “anti-Western” or whatever term our political class feels obliged to put on Moscow’s pursuit of limited national interests.

Modern Russian Presidents may like to model themselves after Byzantine emperors, but that does not mean that they have the constitutional role of the autokrator. If we take this autocracy idea seriously, we are going to come to the wrong conclusions. As a general rule, we routinely misread and misunderstand what other governments are trying to do because we tend to personalize discussion of what these governments do. Even now that Putin is no longer actually President, there is some need in certain circles to insist that he is the one really in charge, because the personalized interpretation of a neo-Soviet regime or “unpredictable” so-called revisionist power does not work nearly as well when its head of state is a lawyer with some modest reform impulses. Medvedev can’t really be in charge, and can’t even be the major partner in a sort of dyarchical executive, because he cannot be made into a villain as easily as an ex-KGB officer.

Medvedev’s reform impulses shouldn’t be ignored, but they shouldn’t be exaggerated, either. Likewise, Medvedev is a Russian nationalist, and his view of Russian security interests and foreign policy is not significantly different from that of Putin. His career in Gazprom reinforces the certainty that his policies will be shaped to a significant degree by the needs of the Russian energy sector, as you would expect in a petro-state. As we saw in the war in Georgia, Medvedev is no less willing to defend Russia’s role in the separatist enclaves in Georgia, and he has shown no significantly greater tolerance for dissent. Indeed, in reaction to the worsening economic crisis, authoritarian measures have become stronger inside Russia in an attempt to quell or minimize dissent and upheaval. We would be less surprised, and less inclined to invent ridiculous narratives about Russian “backsliding” if none of us floated a theory every few years that some new leader is going to change Russian policy in major ways. One of the problems with such theories is that they seem to be driven to some degree by a desire to see foreign leaders who sign off on U.S. foreign policy moves that their predecessors found intolerable, as if opposition to these moves was the idiosyncratic or arbitrary reaction of a particular person rather than an expression of state interests as understood by a broad consensus inside the other government.

Of course, the siloviki, the military, Gazprom and the oligarchs are fundamentally no less important to the current system than they were when Putin was President (the oligarchs and Gazprom are poorer, but not necessarily less important in shaping policy for all that), and their interests continue to define the contours of Russian policy because they make up the overwhelming bulk of the power structure. Even modern regimes that might be more reasonably described as autocracies–the Saudi monarchy, for example–have interest groups at home they must satisfy, and in Russia and China there are institutions and political forces that the head of state has to accommodate, not vice versa. The more we acknowledge that Russian policy is dictated by Russian perception of their national interests, rather than by the preferences of a particular leader, the better chance we have of recognizing where our interests are shared and where we can accommodate their objections.

Update: Now posted at The New Atlanticist.